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1/19/2017 9:00:00 AM
Is STEM working? Schools say yes
Donor Nancy Vanderhoef smiles with Elizabeth Hasseler, who trained teachers at Albany's Academy of the Holy Names on the use of the school's new 3-D printer.
Donor Nancy Vanderhoef smiles with Elizabeth Hasseler, who trained teachers at Albany's Academy of the Holy Names on the use of the school's new 3-D printer.

The recent push for students to learn science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) skills has taken hold in local Catholic classrooms and school environments.

Students at St. Jude the Apostle School in Wynantskill, for instance, have a whole class dedicated to learning new things through the process of STREAM, as they call it, incorporating religion and art into the mix.

Kathy Vonk, technology coordinator at St. Jude, says she teaches her students how to fail and make messes. Many of the projects Ms. Vonk's class takes on are completed through trial and error.

"Sometimes people walk in the door and they think there's a riot going on," the teacher laughed. Her class, she said, is occasionally "organized chaos."

In fact, at the start of the school year, Ms. Vonk allows her students to write what they would like to learn on a sticky note, posting it on a designated wall in her classroom. When they need a new project, she simply takes a Post-It off the wall and creates a lesson based on it.

Catch their interest
"When you give them the freedom to make choices, they are very enthusiastic," she remarked.

The St. Jude students have taken apart computers, dissected owl pellets -- the nodules of undigestible animal and insect parts the birds regurgitate -- and written computer code.

"We learned how to make pancakes," reported fourth-grader Carly Hunter, recalling a project on the chemical reactions that take place in baking. "It was fun to do, and we got to eat them!"

The STREAM focus seems to be working for Carly: She wants to be an engineer when she grows up. She says she was inspired by studying aerodynamics: Her class did a project on how to build paper airplanes that could, in theory, carry one of Santa's reindeer back to the North Pole.

Sean Moore, one of Carly's classmates, said that particular lesson taught him that engineering projects can be hands-on and fun.

Earth and water
"We try to use what's around us," Ms. Vonk told The Evangelist. The STREAM students are now creating a garden on an unused plot of land at the school.

Inspired by the water contamination in the Hoosick Falls area (see www.evangelist.org), the technology classes have often used a nearby stream as a living laboratory.

"We tested the water," said Ms. Vonk. "We take news headlines and we find things that are happening."

The students are able to incorporate almost any subject area into the STREAM course, allowing for students who have different strengths work together to create the best projects possible.

At Saratoga Central Catholic School, which encompasses grades six through 12, STREAM has a foot in every subject.

All students in the middle school grades are provided with Chromebooks, internet-based laptops. The Chromebooks are the student's to keep, though they have to bring the laptops to school with them each day.

Students are often encouraged to use the computers or their cell phones to do research during class, making the internet a tool to find information quickly.

Online aspect
In addition, "whatever is taught in the classroom is being put online," noted Dennis Ostrowski, vice principal. "If a student is missing for a day, they can go online and grab the material and stay constant."

That practice helps the students better prepare themselves for college, as well as integrating technology into all of their studies.

At the Academy of the Holy Names in Albany, STEM is taking the form of an exciting new tool: a 3D printer. The printer, donated by campus minister Nancy Vanderhoef and her husband, John, is allowing students to use new technology to learn about mathematics, engineering, other sciences and technical writing. Possible projects include creating and printing 3D models of efficient containers while learning geometry and recreating historic objects for a social studies class.

Robotics club
At St. Mary's School in Ballston Spa, STREAM doesn't end when the school day is over: At an after-school club, students build robots to compete in area competitions through the First Lego League, an organization that helps introduce STEM into schools in a fun way.

Students are expected to build robots that are able to navigate obstacle courses; they are also required to do presentatations on values they have learned through the projects.

"It's really interesting," said Jacqueline Miller, a St. Mary's parent who volunteers as leader of the group. This year, her team was given the challenge to research honeybees and incorporate that knowledge into their robot design.

"Learning in a different way, away from the traditional way of learning, can be exciting," principal Lynn Fitzgerald told The Evangelist.

The hands-on STEM/STREAM activities also help the students learn to collaborate with one another, allowing them to hone their own skills while practicing the art of compromise and teamwork.

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